The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

Before him I thought that when love came it would come perfectly. Not in a dingy room on dirty sheets and not caring at all about those things.

Remember those heady days when you set off for university? Young, fresh, desperate to see the world and all it had to offer? Eily has left Ireland for London and drama school. She’s intoxicated by the city:

Get out at Barbican.

Her first into the salient wind, fists of grasping hair. Me blinking the grit over the bridge and after her. Brick and towers. Lour and paint. Here’s nowhere like any life I’ve learned. Even going under, it goes on up. She’s saying how it’s ugly and I think not. I think it is Metropolis.

It’s also her introduction to drink, drugs and, she hopes, sex. Despite her Irish landlady who doesn’t allow her to have men in her room and complains constantly about her using all the hot water, Eily sets out to lose her virginity.

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She meets Stephen when the ash from his cigarette drops onto her hand as they’re standing at the bar in a busy pub. He’s a relatively famous actor, although she doesn’t know that. They have some tetchy discussions about reading Dostoyevsky, love and youth and Eily lies to him about how much travelling she’s done.

When they go back to his and begin to undress, she begins to worry about what she’s about to do: ‘But Oh my God, I just Oh God, exhale. Ah now Ireland too much shame.’ He attempts to ally her fears, acknowledges it’s her first time and gains her consent.

Kissing then sloping me, shifting his weight Ready? Yes. And he. Jesus Christ! No don’t pull away. It hurts. I know but it’s not quite in yet. I can’t. You can, just let me, he says It’ll never be as bad again. How do you fucking know? Educated guess. Then Oh fuck, he goes That’s it. And he is all against me. And he is inside. Attempting to kiss through a pain running wild from his body into mine. I bite my own lip and stare above. Ceiling swirls there. Cracks. Worlds beyond the pain not improving. Now. Or now. Or yet. I wish I hadn’t. I’d never done this. I wish he didn’t know.

It ends badly but he convinces her to stay the night. When she leaves the next morning, she doesn’t look back, choosing instead to remember how much she loves London: ‘This is the finest city I think and, no matter how awkward or bloodily, I am in it now too’.

What Eily doesn’t bank on is seeing Stephen again, this time in the National Theatre, where he makes a beeline for her and convinces her to leave before the play’s over. Despite the twenty-year age gap – she’s eighteen and he thirty-eight – a relationship, of sorts, begins.

Remember this moment. I will remember this because, even though this morning’s not much of his life, it’s very much of mine. Whatever happens, nothing will be the same after and nothing will be like it again.

The novel’s narrated by Eily in a similar style to the one McBride used in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, although I think this is generally less staccato than her debut. Sentences are rhythmic and sometimes rhyme, with echoes of Shakespeare built into some of the phrases. However, at the mid-point of the book, Stephen delivers a monologue, in straight prose, telling Eily (and the reader) the full horror of his childhood. He has some dark secrets which he’s never shared before. It seems fitting that McBride chose a monologue for him, as he’s the type of character who would have to tell all in one go or not at all.

Events in both Stephen and Eily’s lives bring into question memory and individual viewpoints, of people choosing what to see and what to remember. McBride explores the damage the past can do to the present through Stephen and Eily’s behaviour and the constantly changing status of their relationship.

In a recent review of the novel in The New York Times, Jeanette Winterson commented:

There’s endless sex in this novel. If the writing were terrible, we’d be in “Fifty Shades” territory. But McBride is good at describing heterosexual sex because she doesn’t describe it in the usual ways…

Well, of course there’s lots of sex, this is a couple in the early days of their relationship. But I don’t think McBride’s success in writing about sex is merely down to the style of the writing, it’s also because she writes sex that’s messy and real. This isn’t Hollywood, it’s a bedsit in Camden and a thousand other rooms around the world.

I feel similarly about The Lesser Bohemians as I did The Essex Serpent; I didn’t read this novel, I lived inside its pages. McBride has a rare talent for placing you inside the character, seeing what they see, feeling how they feel. I was filled with joy and wrenched apart again and again; it was exhausting and exhilarating. I revelled in it. On the back of the book, there’s a quote from Anne Enright in which she declares Eimear McBride ‘a genius’, she’ll get no argument from me.

 

Thanks to Faber & Faber for the review copy.

Eimear McBride at Manchester Literature Festival

‘I didn’t know what I was doing,’ says Eimear McBride on starting the novel that would become The Lesser Bohemians. Once writing was underway, however, she realised it was about a relationship between a woman in her late teens and a man in his thirties and that there would be constant change in the status of their relationship.

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The book started with London, the London McBride had known in the nineties. The protagonist came through that. She’s a very different girl to the one in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, she has the ‘capacity for making connection to the world’ says McBride.

She wanted to write about being Irish at that time, before the Good Friday Agreement ended The Troubles. It was ‘much more different to be Irish’ she says. There was a terrorist stigma. She also wanted to write about the other type of Irish immigrant to the one that’s often portrayed in literature – the one who went somewhere that they really like! McBride says that’s not part of the Irish immigrant story. She says her protagonist sees London as ‘Babylon’. She goes from ‘black and white to living in glorious technicolour’.

McBride says she’s interested in what is said and unsaid, what is hidden and what is revealed. An actor and a drama student seemed to be the perfect vehicle for this. For Steven, the actor, it’s his rakishness versus his underlying life. McBride says she builds her characters using methods she learned in drama school. She refers to it as ‘method writing’.

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When she was writing A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, ‘character is what I was primarily interested in’ and ‘looking at the totality of the moment’. She says she thought about what they were thinking, she thought about their physicality. The moment’s stretched out in what she refers to as ‘straight’ writing, but this is unnatural. She was aiming to do in writing what an actor does with their body when they’re inhabiting a character.

The play that was created from A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing McBride describes as ‘quite an odd experience’. She was concerned as to how the play would tackle the material as the novel allowed her to connect the reader directly to the character, to what was going on internally. There’s no external description of her in the book. She was never an object. The book was a shared experience between the writer and the character. However, she says, Aoife Duffin, the actress who performed the play did so with little ego and understood the character so well.

Discussion returns to The Lesser Bohemians and how McBride moved to writing about sex and male sexuality. She said she approached with caution and that ‘it is a lie’ that women can’t write men. She says the way she wrote about sex was the way she wrote about everything else. She imagines her characters as people, pre-gender. She writes from a human perspective, not a gendered one. She also listened to a lot of male singer-songwriters as she felt they revealed their vulnerabilities. ‘Novelists are a bit more bombastic.’

The novel’s about two key things: the first is people finding ways they can live with their own vulnerability/the memory of their vulnerability. The second is how people choose to interpret the past. What happens to an event when people recall being told about it and then retell it themselves? The past can be an enemy and a friend. Your past is open to everyone; you don’t get final say on your past. She asks, how much can you ever know even about your own story?

The interviewer asks her how she feels about her work being compared to Joyce and Woolf. ‘I love it; it’s brilliant’, McBride jokes, following her comment up with, ‘It’s an odd thing’. She says that A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was ‘borne out of failure for so long’ that comparisons to Joyce were a way for people to talk about the book, even though McBride says that she and him are doing different things. ‘I’m asking the reader to be humane’, while Joyce asks the reader to be clever. What’s she’s doing is ninety degrees from Finnegan’s Wake. ‘What is specific about human life?’ she asks.

Book Lists for All Humans #5

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It’s been a while…not because there haven’t been lists published that weren’t gender balanced, I’m sure there have been, more because while I’m not compiling In the Media, I’m not in my media Twitter feed and so I’m not seeing them. However, I was on the Guardian website this afternoon and they’d published a new ‘Top 10 books’ list. DBC Pierre deserves some sort of award for producing the whitest, most male list I’ve seen so far. Apparently, women/people of colour don’t write books that writers should read. Be told people, only white men know how to write.

Here’s my alternative list, please feel free to suggest your own additions/alternatives in the comments:

To create a setting that feels as though it really exists: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

To see complex characters, whose behaviour raises questions about morality, in action: Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

To write successfully from a child’s point-of-view: My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

To manage a complex structure based on a lunar cycle and as good as any box set: The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

To change point-of-view in every chapter, including that of a dead body, and detail some of the atrocities of which humans are capable: Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

To incorporate your own life and letters into fiction/essay/critique: I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

To bring a historical character to life: Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

To write a coming-of-age story in fragmented sentences: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

To write a metafictional account of a massacre: The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandasamy

To create an unreliable, first person narrator: The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika Kapur

 

Links are to my reviews.

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner 2014

Huge congratulations to Eimear McBride for winning the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction 2014 with her inventive debut, ‘A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing’. A well deserved win for a woman who continued to submit her book for nine years until it found a publisher; if ever writers needed proof that you shouldn’t give up, it’s here. It’s also another fantastic boost for Galley Beggars Press, who took a risk on a book no one else was willing to publish. May we see many more fresh, challenging books from them in the future.

(Click on the book cover to see my review of the novel.)

The Bailey’s Prize – A Guide to the Shortlist

The Bailey’s Prize is announced this week. At this point the only thing that’s certain is the five judges are going to have a tough time choosing a winner; the shortlist is exceptional. Here’s my guide to the six remaining books (if you click on the covers it’ll take you to the full reviews):

 

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze’s enduring love but also a tale of racial inequality and the West’s racial narrative.

Best for: A new perspective and a cracking love story.

Any flaws? I loved it so but I could see why people might find it slightly too long.

 

 

 

Burial Rites is a fictionalised version of the story of Agnus Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

Best for: Incredible descriptions of the Icelandic scenery; giving a voice to a marginalised woman.

Any flaws? The conversations Agnus has with the Reverend Thorvadar become an expositional device towards the end.

 

 

The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, and their lives. Initially the action takes place in Calcutta and then moves to America. There is also a third character, a woman, Gauri, who becomes central as the novel progresses.

Best for: Incredible layered prose that builds into something spectacular.

Any flaws? A slow starter.

 

 

The Undertaking tells the story of Peter Faber and Katharina Spinelli’s marriage. It’s 1941 and Peter is a soldier fighting at Stalingrad. Katharina is the daughter of a family of Nazi sympathisers.

Best for: The dialogue is superb; the viewpoint is unflinching and relates without condemning.

Any flaws? It’s grim, oh so very very grim.

 

 

 

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is a coming-of-age tale of an unnamed Irish girl who tells her story to her younger brother who is dying from a brain tumour.

Best for: Fragmented prose which builds images in an almost poetic way. It’s like nothing you’ve read before.

Any flaws? It’s grim; the darkest book on the list. It will leave you broken.

 

 

The Goldfinch is Theodore Decker’s story following his mother’s death in a terrorist bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It follows him through New York, Vegas and Amsterdam along with the painting from which the book takes its name and Theo takes from the museum.

Best for: A cracking good yarn you can immerse yourself in.

Any flaws? The ending’s ludicrous.

 

The Winner? For me, it has to be Americanah; it’s an incredible book – a book that changed my perspective while making me will the lovers on.

However, if I was in the judging room and forced to compromise, The Lowland and A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing would be my alternative choices.

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist

It’s here! The six shortlisted books are:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

Hannah Kent – Burial Rites

Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland

Audrey Magee – The Undertaking

Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

(Click the titles for links to my reviews.)

First thought: Oh my goodness, no The Luminaries followed by yessssssss for Americanah and The Undertaking. Four of my wishlist are on, including the two that for me had to be there. Very much looking forward to the debate over these six for the next few weeks.

My Bailey’s Women’s Prize Shortlist

On Monday 7th April, the judges of the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction will announce their shortlist. Trying to second guest the books those five women will decide to put through to the second round of the prize is not my aim here – I would no doubt be wrong on several counts. However, having read sixteen of the longlisted books and partially read three (at the time of writing), were I to be one of the judges fighting for the books I love to be included, these are the six I’d be fighting for (click on the covers to read my reviews):

I was stunned to discover that the longlist included two of the best books I’ve ever read. Stunned because the older you become and the more you read, the less often a book is the ‘best’ book you’ve ever read. However, Americanah is an incredible book. It has a fresh, direct tone; its subject matter is intelligent and thoughtful but doesn’t detract from the love story at its core; it’s quite an achievement. The Lowland is a masterpiece. Skilfully written with carefully layered sentences and ideas of loss at its centre, it’s deeply affecting.

The Luminaries makes the list because it combines a cracking detective story with a interesting structure. When I reached the second half of the book, the plot and the decreasing length of the chapters meant I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing is another novel with an interesting structure – the present day story is told forward, while the past is presented to us in reverse. This leaves the reading feeling like a detective looking for the protagonist’s motive and being wrong-footed at several points.

Then I have two debuts: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is an incredible piece of literature. Again, the sentences are layered, although in this case they are staccato and dense – an odd juxtaposition that you have to completely immerse yourself in. This could have been a fairly straight-forward (although very grim) coming-of-age story but the style and structure transcend it. The Undertaking also transcends a genre, in this case, war fiction. Two things make this a good book as opposed to a good debut – the use of dialogue and the point of view. The novel’s mostly dialogue, not an easy thing to write, and it works; it’s snappy and clear, while leaving room for ambiguity of meaning. Point of view wise, this is a story of a family of Nazi sympathisers and a soldier in the battle of Stalingrad. Again, this was a book that felt fresh.

It’s worth pointing out here that of the nineteen longlisted books I’ve read (or partially read at the time of writing) there isn’t a bad one amongst them. I was going to post some ‘near misses’ too but I found myself wanting to post all of them. The full list of my reviews is here (hopefully this will be complete shortly); I’m sure there’s something there you’ll enjoy.

Now for the excitement of waiting for the actual shortlist…

 

(The only book I haven’t read any of is Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam as I want to read the whole trilogy.)

Books of the Year 2013

Choosing the books that I’ve loved, recommended and bought the most copies of for friends wasn’t difficult, whittling them down was. Because of that, I’ve gone for fifteen books that I enjoyed the most this year. If you click on the title of the book, it will take you to my original review.

Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser

Questions of Travel follows Laura and Ravi. Laura chooses to travel, using her inheritance from her aunt to do so; Ravi is forced to travel when the civil war in Sri Lanka visits his doorstep. de Kretser considers the myriad of ways in which we travel in modern society in a novel that’s sublimely written with a perfect ending. Winner of three awards in Australia, I’m astonished it hasn’t had a bigger fanfare in the UK.

 

Love, Nina – Nina Stibbe

Love, Nina contains a series of letters from Nina Stibbe to her sister Vic, written in the 1980s. At the time, Stibbe was a nanny to the sons of Mary Kay Wilmers, editor of the LRB. Alan Bennet frequently pops round for dinner, while the street contains a number of the UK literati. Stibbe’s letters are full of keen observations delivered in the same tone, regardless of the participants, and this makes the book both warm and humorous. It’s one of those books that’s larger than the sum of its parts. A joy.

Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

Apple Tree Yard tells the story of Yvonne Carmichael, a 52-year-old geneticist, who embarks on an affair with a stranger. An affair that will threaten her family, her career and ultimately, her freedom. Told in retrospect beginning with Yvonne standing in the dock at the Old Bailey, Apple Tree Yard had me up late at night, frantically turning pages. It’s a tightly plotted tale with an ending that will leave you gasping.

 

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being is the dual narrative of Ruth, an American novelist living on a Canadian island, and Nao, a Japanese school girl. Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on shore, containing Nao’s diary, some letters and a watch. She assumes it is debris from the 2011 tsunami. As Ruth reads Nao’s diary and the store of her family unfolds, we read Ruth’s story and are manipulated by it. A wonderful story of time and quantum physics.

 

 

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

After almost a decade of rejections, the small, independent Galley Beggar Press published this gem which went on to win The Goldsmith’s Prize. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is the story of an unnamed female narrator as told to (for?) her brother who is dying of a brain tumour. It is brutal both in its short, staccato prose and in content. (I don’t recommend reading it in the depths of January, it’ll send you over the edge.) This really is ‘a new voice in fiction’.

 

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

Winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, The Luminaries is a yarn of a tale set amongst gold diggers during the gold rush in New Zealand. It is a story of murder, theft and love with a with a structure that builds throughout the first half and explodes with revelations in the second. One to indulge in.

 

 

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo

Barrington Jedidiah Walker, 74, born in the Caribbean but resident in London has kept a secret for fifty years from his wife and two grown-up daughters: the love of his life, his best friend Morris. Barry decides it’s time to come-out but obviously, it’s not going to be that easy. Evaristo has a wonderful ear for dialogue and the rhythms of Barry and Carmel’s speech are a joy.

 

Jacob’s Folly – Rebecca Miller

A story told from the point of view of a fly shouldn’t work but it does and it does so brilliantly. The fly is the reincarnation of Jacob Cerf, an ex-peddler from 18th century France. When Jacob the fly becomes aware that he can influence others, he decides to meddle with the life of Masha Edelman, a 21-year-old Torah Jew and Leslie Senzatimore, a man who lives his life in order to help others. Miller uses their stories to consider whether we really have free will or whether our lives are constrained by other forces.

The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer

Six friends meet at summer camp in the 1970s and their lives become entwined forever despite the huge differences in their statuses. Wolitzer follows them through adult life looking at the choices they make and how these affect the whole group dynamic. It’s a dense novel but one that is driven forward by a non-linear narrative and a thread that you know is going to explode spectacularly.

 

The Engagements – J.Courtney Sullivan

The Engagements opens in 1947 with copywriter, Frances Gerety, creating the line ‘A diamond is forever’. The novel then goes on to intertwine her story – one of a woman who definitely doesn’t want an engagement ring – with those of four others: Evelyn Pearsall, whose son Teddy has just left his wife and children; James McKeen, a medical responder whose wife was recently mugged; Delphine Moreau, whose young lover has betrayed her, and a human rights officer whose helping with the preparations for her cousin Jeff’s wedding to his boyfriend, Toby. An unashamedly feminist look at our society’s values.

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, bound to relive her life until the changes are made that prevent her previous death. The concept sounds bizarre, the execution is brilliant. Atkinson takes us through the war, affairs and a meeting with Hitler. The section of the novel during The Blitz is particularly well drawn, so much so, you’ll want to hide behind your hands during some passages. This one will leave you wanting to find someone else who’s read it to discuss in detail.

 

The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

The only book on the list not published this year, however it is one of this year’s Fiction Uncovered titles. Set in 1830, 14-year-old Mary tells us about life on her father’s farm with her four sisters and her elderly grandfather. Offered work at the vicarage, Mary is forced to go and tend for the vicar’s ill wife. When the vicar’s wife dies, she is kept on and the course of her life takes a turn for the worst. A novel about the control of men over women told with a voice that will have you rooting for this young girl.

 

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

The story of Theodore Decker, who’s caught in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, in which his mother dies. The attack leaves him with the painting ‘The Goldfinch’ in his possession and a ring that he’s to return to James Hobart. These two things will set his life on a dangerous course. Told in immersive detail, this is a wonderful novel which will have you living Theo’s eventful life alongside him.

 

The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls is the book that reignited my love of thrillers. It’s the story of Harper Curtis, time-travelling serial killer (stick with it, it works) and Kirby Mazrachi, who should have been one of his victims but who survives his attack and sets out to track him down. But The Shining Girls is more than that, it’s also the story of all Harper’s victims and those victims tell the story of women through the twentieth century. Shining, indeed.

 

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was the first book I read to make the list. It’s the story of Hattie, who leaves the segregated south for Philadelphia and a better life. Hattie is already pregnant with twins and with her womanising, gambling, alcoholic husband whom she can’t stay away from, Hattie will have another eight children. These, along with her first grandchild, form the twelve tribes of the title. Each chapter tells one of their stories, stories of homophobia, abuse and mental illness. A beautifully written story of a family and one woman’s quest for survival.

Thanks to all the publishers who’ve sent books for review this year.